Forum on the Economic Meltdown in the Empire and its Impact to the Filipino People
Bantayog ng mga Bayani, Quezon City, 27 September 2008
THE EXECUTED GOD
We do not need the Bible to prove that Jesus lived, that he was murdered by the empire, and that his followers confess that he is alive.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man… For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks… When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him… And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63, written about 90 C.E.)
Therefore to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (Cornelius Tacitus, Annals 15.44, written about 120 C.E.)
Both accounts, one Jewish, the other Roman, agree on three things. First, there was a movement connected with Jesus. Second, he was executed by Rome to stop the movement. Third, instead of being stopped, the movement continued to spread. THERE REMAIN, THEREFORE, THESE THREE: MOVEMENT, EXECUTION, CONTINUATION. AND THE GREATEST OF THESE IS CONTINUATION… 1
Yes, the greatest is continuation but what has happened since then? Is our Christianity, a continuation of the Jesus movement or an abomination? The early Christians worshipped an executed God. We confess that we do, but do we really?
Laura Donaldson, a Cherokee, reminds us: “What civilization invented the most brutal system of conquest and exploitation the world has ever known? Christian. Who made slavery the basis for capitalist expansion? Christians. What religion has been the most responsible for the genocide of aboriginal peoples? Christianity. In my view, the Christian church has a much more substantial record of pure evil than any final good.”
The first one thousand years of Christianity was one millennium of war and destruction in the name of Jesus Christ. And those “civilizing missions” have not stopped. Even today, the most oppressive and dehumanizing societies are led by “Christian” centurions who have no qualms maiming and destroying those who are not “one of them.” And two of these are in the White House and in Malacanang, George W. Bush and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, respectively.
The Manila Declaration of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches says, “Western Christianity has been closely related to empire since Roman days. Since then it has spread throughout the world, and now it is being used to provide ideological legitimization for today’s empire. Globalized Christendom and the ‘crusades’ it embarks upon today are symbiotically intertwined with global capital and the power of the global empire. In its triumphalistic pursuits, it discounts if not condemns all other religious faiths and cultures. The indigenous religions of many communities are destroyed and Islam is vilified.
The convergence of Christian religion with Western modernity has destroyed the religious and cultural life of peoples and their communities throughout the world. The powers and principalities of the global market and empire are being baptized by these theological distortions of ‘Christianity’, which promote religious conflicts and bigotry globally.
The Christian religion of empire treats others as ‘gentiles’ to be conquered, as the ‘evil empire’ to be destroyed, or as the ‘axis of evil’ to be eradicated from the earth. The empire claims that the ‘goodness’ of the empire must overcome these ‘evils’. Its false messianic spirit is imbued with the demonic.
These false claims destroy the integrity of faiths, and radically erode the identity of Christian faith in Jesus Christ. As the spirit of empire penetrates souls, the power of global empire possesses the bodies of all living beings. Lord of its domain, it builds temples for the global market to serve Profit (Mammon).
The empire uses ‘democracy’ as an umbrella term for the kind of political regime that it would like to see installed all over the world. Bringing democracy to countries that do not yet have it is claimed as the defining purpose of US foreign policy. For the US, democracies abroad are regimes that support or follow its dictates.”
Today, as the world feels the impact of the empire’s meltdown, two things are clear. First, the empire will strike back, as it always does, to save and protect itself, and the poor will feel its wrath, as they always do. Second, as people who take pride in calling ourselves Christians, we need to repent and turn back from our wicked ways, because most of us have been following the wrong Jesus and many among us have been preaching the wrong sermons.
JESUS IS LORD
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine Jesus, the one many of us call our Personal Lord and Savior. If the Jesus we imagine looks like an American or European movie star, white, blond, and with blue eyes, then we’re following the wrong Jesus. If the Jesus we imagine is the same Jesus who told McKinley to take possession of the Philippines, and told Bush to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq, then we’re following the wrong Jesus. If we imagine the same Jesus that Gloria Arroyo prays to before she gives the orders to abduct and harass our pastors and church workers, like Berlin Guerrero and Melchor Abesamis, then we’re following the wrong Jesus. If the Jesus we imagine tells us to build huge buildings and air-conditioned chapels in his honor instead of reaching out to the poor and the marginalized among us, then we are following the wrong Jesus. If the Jesus we imagine has prepared a mansion in heaven for us, and wants us to spend eternity with him in an other-worldly place, and has no problems when his followers kill people and cultures in his name, then, definitely, we are following the wrong Jesus.
We are so used to that word "Gospel," that it has lost its original meaning. But in antiquity, when the Roman empire went off and conquered another land in the name of their god Caesar, and killed all the men, raped all the women, and destroyed all the homes, the soldiers would come back parading throughout the land announcing "the Gospel according to Caesar," the Good News of the latest victory of Caesar, that another land has been conquered for their god Caesar, and that Caesar's enemies have been killed.2
When the Gospel of Mark announces the “beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he actually announces the most radical, subversive proclamation during that time—Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar; God’s reign has come, and Rome’s has come to an end. Put in another way, in Greek the empire was called basileia; the emperor, basileus. For almost everyone in the empire, Rome was basileia; Caesar was basileus. I said, almost, because for Christians, God’s reign was basileia; Jesus was basileus.
In Jesus’ alternative or counter-empire, there was only one commandment: love for neighbor, especially the least. In Luke 10:28, Jesus tells a lawyer that love for God and love for neighbor is one commandment. He tells the parable of the Samaritan to make his point. Matthew 25:31-46 is a “surprising” parable because both the blessed and cursed were surprised. They were judged based on what they did, as far as the sheep were concerned, and what they did not do, as far as the goats were concerned, for others, for people in need. (They were not judged on what they did or what they did not do for God.)
Paul summarizes all the commandments in Romans 13:9 as love for neighbor. James is more explicit in 2:15-17 when he wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace… and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” The message of the Johannine letters is straight-forward: if you say you love God, whom you do not see, but not your brothers and sisters, whom you see, then you are a liar. In Mark 17: 21, Jesus tells a rich young man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come follow me.”
THE STORIES JESUS TOLD
Jesus was executed by the empire because of the life he lived and the stories he told. Parables are subversive speech. They are the opposite of myths. Parables are not earthly stories about heavenly things, but earthy stories about heavy things.
I grew up hearing sermons on stewardship based on Luke 21: 1-4, the widow’s offering: “…for others have contributed out of their abundance but she, out of her poverty has put in all that she had to live on.” I grew up disgusted with any system, religious or otherwise, that robbed people of even the barest that they had. More than praising the widow, I believe Jesus was actually denouncing the temple’s system of dispossessing the already dispossessed. I think the incident at the temple was his way of declaring, “Enough!” Yet, our churches and our programs live-off the backs of the poor.
The Laborers in the Vineyard3 offer us a portrait of an oikodespotes, a despot, an elitist oppressor who, in order to possess, to ensure a timely harvest, offers a denarius--subsistence level pay--to workers; workers who'll take anything just to get by today. Jesus told this parable to unmask the divide-and-conquer rule of the landed, yet we love to preach this parable by celebrating the despot and demonizing the lowly workers.
The Tenants in the Vineyard4 initially possess the land after claiming it violently from its absentee landlord. But "...what then will the owner of the vineyard do?" What do we do with this text? We celebrate the landlord and justify his use of violence to get his property back. We never preach from the perspective of the tenants.
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus5, Jesus uses Abraham as paradigm of the blessed rich to shock his listeners: Father Abraham should have received the rich man into his bosom but he does not; he receives Lazarus—poor Lazarus who dies and doesn't even get to be buried. The elite, possessed by possessions, have for so long used Abraham as justification for their oppression. We seldom preach on this text because its message is clear. God is on the side of the poor.
"How do we get ourselves out of debt?" people ask. A good King might do it or even a Christian president or a Christian senate. The parable of the Unmerciful Servant6 reminds us of the hopelessness of looking for deliverance in kings (or presidents). Rulers are part of the system that created them. The parable proposes that neither messianic hope nor popular kingship can resolve the people's dilemma. To reshape their world, to assert their claim as God's heirs, the people must look elsewhere.
The Talents7 offer a portrait of the whistle blower; the one who, sickened by the system, cries, "Enough!" It offers us a glimpse of the dispossessed who live in the outer darkness, far from the centers of power and light, struggling to survive from day to day, "weeping and gnashing teeth." Yet, when we preach on this text, we take the side of the two who were “faithful” to the oppressive system of their master, instead of the third who said, “No.”
The Friend at Midnight8 paints a different kind of portrait. Village peasants offer hospitality to visitors and sojourners and are engaged in little acts that challenge the efforts of their oppressors to dehumanize them. Rather than cave in to the desire to hoard and accumulate, as the rich then and now do, peasants, then and now, continue to cooperate and to provide hospitality. Their shameless social order of small redistribution of food and resources foreshadows a different order of human relations.9 This is one of Jesus’ most powerful parables but we almost never preach on this.
We have much to repent for. I echo the Manila Declaration’s call: We ask all churches whose missions and peoples have historically been involved in empire building to seriously scrutinize—in partnership with the victims of their imperial past—their structure, teaching, hermeneutics, liturgy, music, funding agencies and policies as well as their political allegiances, in order to repent and reshape their life in all aspects in the spirit of the anti-imperial biblical heritage.
Whether we read the Bible or Josephus or Tacitus, one thing is crystal clear: Jesus lived and preached an alternative empire—a life of open healing and shared eating, of radical itinerancy, of empowered egalitarianism, of human contact without discrimination and without hierarchies, and of preferential option for the poor. And Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire because of this. A life totally dedicated to the liberation of the poor and the powerless is a very dangerous life. Those of us who follow Jesus actually worship an executed God.
THERE REMAIN, THEREFORE, THESE THREE: MOVEMENT, EXECUTION, CONTINUATION. AND THE GREATEST OF THESE IS CONTINUATION.
ARE WE READY TO CONTINUE?
1 John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus. Many arguments in this BTR are based on the works of Crossan and members of the Jesus Seminar, Ched Myers, William Herzog, and Carlos Abesamis.
3 This section draws heavily from the work of Herzog. Matthew 20:1-16
4 Mark 12:1-12
5 Luke 16:19-31
6 Matthew 18:23-35
7 Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27
8 Luke 11:5-8
9 Paul in Ephesians 3:28 advice the church in Ephesus to work hard not to save for themselves but “...so as to have something to share...”